Driven To Distraction

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I had made plans.

In early February, STYLE magazine asked me to embark on an experiment: Spend 48 hours, an entire weekend, totally disconnected—no Internet, no laptop, no phone, no texting, no television, no device of any kind with a backlit electronic display. What might I discover, the editor wondered, if a technology journalist spent a weekend not distracted by technology?

For reference, this is antithetical to how I live my life now. While I don’t have Facebook installed on my phone any more (gave that up a few years ago) and I don’t use Instagram, I am a freelance writer, so I’m constantly connected to my work and email either through my laptop or phone. I type words for remuneration. I bookend my days with Twitter. I carry my phone into the bathroom. What I’ve found over the last year is that I’ve become increasingly groggy, twitchy and agitated by small things. If a website doesn’t load quickly enough, for instance, I grab hold of my laptop screen and start shaking it. I fight with my devices, which would be a mildly humorous scene if not for the fact that I sometimes find myself verbally scolding inanimate objects.

Think about your own usage, for a moment. Do you Instagram your meals when you’re out with friends? Do you record video at concerts, taking in the performance behind a tiny screen? Do you swipe Tinder faces at the O’s game?(Yep…Nope…He’s Out!) Or maybe you spend more time taking pictures of your kids playing than actually playing with them?

Our inability to separate from our devices is only growing. Consider numbers mobile analytics firm Flurry released in March 2014. The average smartphone consumer opens up apps 10 times a day, but mobile “super users” open apps 16 to 60 times a day, and mobile addicts open apps at least 60 times a day. Worldwide, Flurry concluded, there are 440 million super users and 176 million mobile addicts—totals that grew 55 percent and 123 percent, respectively, over the course of one year. And these figures cut across age ranges. Teenagers, college students and middle-aged people between 35 and 54 are becoming more and more intimate with their Internet-connected phones.

Studies over the years have begun delving into the effects of this sort of technological devotion. A study published in February in the Academy of Management Journal found that people become more irritable if they answer emails after the workday is done. “People who were part of the study reported they became angry when they received a work email or text after they had gone home and that communication was negatively worded or required a lot of the person’s time,” said the study’s lead author Marcus Butts. An associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, Butts surveyed 341 working adults over a weeklong period and found—counter-intuitively, one would think—that “people who tried to separate work from their personal life experienced more work-life interference.”

Another study, this one published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing in 2013, indicated that college students who might be classified as addicted to the Internet display similar traits: neuroticism, psychoticism (being aloof, anti-social or even aggressive), and greater “life stress.” And new studies examining the effects of electronic device use on sleep demonstrate that lack of sleep induced by hours spent staring at tiny, illuminated screens is biological, not psychological, in nature: A paper published last December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that participants who spent four hours before bed reading on an iPad took longer to fall asleep and slept less deeply, specifically because they
generated lower amounts of the hormone melatonin, the production of which increases in the evening and helps you nod off.

Companies are popping up all over the globe to offer respite from (and make money off of) our thumb-tapping, cyber-addicted ways. Camp Grounded in Mendocino, Calif., promises four days of digital detox and activities designed to pull adults away from their precious Internet: Yoga! Archery! Non-violent Communication! Creative writing…on a typewriter! All that and more, including sustainable/allergy-friendly meals, accommodations (read: bunk) and live music, can be yours for between $445 and $645, depending on when you book. You could buy three iPad Minis for that amount of money, which prompts the inevitable question: Why the hell don’t we just unplug from our devices?

Maybe it’s because we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.

So before I embarked on STYLE’s assignment, I planned out my weekend, trying to ensure that I wouldn’t succumb to the Internet. On Friday night I tucked my iPhone away on a bookshelf.

Saturday started out triumphantly enough: I awoke without my alarm, and during my scheduled 11 a.m. haircut, I drank a local microbrew as I boasted to my barber I was getting paid to not check email or my phone. When I returned home I did the laundry. I made it 75 more pages through a James K. Polk biography. Later that day it started snowing and, after several inches covered the sidewalk, I went outside to shovel. This is going well, I thought.

It’s cliché to say, but I really did feel as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The world wasn’t as foggy as I had remembered it. And then I started getting anxious. I tried reading again, but couldn’t make it more than a couple of pages before I put the book down and impulsively reached for an iPhone that wasn’t there. Eventually I found myself lying on the couch, aimlessly, just staring at the ceiling.

This wasn’t the first time a journalist was dispatched to live Internet-free for any period of time and then write about the aftermath. In the last couple years, Paul Miller and David Roberts each spent a full year offline. (Miller, formerly of tech news website The Verge, in 2013; and Roberts, still a reporter for environmental news website Grist, in 2014.) The general premise in all these experiments is roughly the same—that by going off-line, one is more mindful of and connected to the actual world, not some digital parallel universe, and better off for it. By eschewing the immediacy of the Internet, we free ourselves from what researcher Linda Stone calls continuous partial attention: paying a little bit of attention to a variety of things without interruption. “I was never completely where I was, never entirely doing what I was doing,” wrote Roberts of his 24/7 online lifestyle—and yearlong disconnect—for Outside last November. “I always had one eye on the virtual world.”

“The thing about the Internet is you grab whatever you want whenever you want it, and that’s just not good for our monkey mind,” says Christopher Mims, the personal technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Mims, however, is the exception to the rule: He doesn’t have an Internet connection at his home in Bolton Hill, a consequence of living in a top-floor apartment cut into an old rowhouse where running wires for broadband access was complicated enough to the point of being impractical. He does have a wireless hot spot available, since he files columns over the weekend, plus a smartphone at his disposal. “But I’m still peering at this tiny screen and I feel like an idiot,” he says.

And there’s the rub. More and more I’ve come to feel increasingly stupid for being unable to break my habit of trying to be connected during every waking moment, an impulse that has thrown off my focus—on both work and life—innumerable times. Although I try to cut off my Internet consumption once the workday ends, there’s always one more email to answer, or one more tweet to read. For Christ’s sake, my phone follows me into the bedroom by default: It’s my alarm clock. (Wonder how many marriages suffer from that alone?)

I couldn’t even make it through a rather meager, limited experiment to live Internet-free for a weekend. Truth be told, I piddled around on Twitter late Friday afternoon, so I didn’t finish a weekly tech column I publish for Philadelphia City Paper every Monday, and so I had to get online Sunday afternoon. Guess I didn’t fully prepare for this experiment after all.

The previous night, however, determined to thrust myself into a public setting without an iPhone as a companion, I walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner. I found a stool at the center of the bar, ordered a stout and a cheeseburger, and sat there alone. I felt weird and friendless, as if losing the opportunity to check Twitter was keeping me away from a joke, or a story, or an event the rest of the world was in on, even though I knew that wasn’t true. To my left and right were two groups of people—as well as two televisions, suspended from the corners. I tried not to cheat. I tried to keep my eyes facing forward. I wound up watching a college basketball game.

When it went to commercial, there was a telecommunications company shilling the reach of its wireless network. A family on a camping trip was using a small projector to watch a movie against the lining of their tent. Pretty cool—until you realize what they’re missing. Outside of that tent is a seemingly endless patchwork of stars aglow in a brilliant night sky. (And, of course, a giant corporate logo. How fitting.)

Since my weekend foray into living a disconnected life, I’ve tried to make small adjustments. Instead of scrolling through Twitter while lying in bed, I set my alarm before I walk into the bedroom and then place my phone on the floor. I keep my phone in the pocket of my jacket while out at a bar, whether I’m with anyone or not. I’m still yelling at the computer screen. But I’m hoping small adjustments over time will eventually lead me to where I need to be—that moment when the clock strikes 5, my laptop screen closes, and I just turn off my phone.

Read thoughts from Baltimore’s top techies here.

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